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Retro Rental: Between TIFF and Fantastic Fest… It’s the ‘Dawn of the Dead’

Dawn of the Dead
Universal Studios

[Each week, depending on what's in theaters, what's in the news or what's on his mind, film critic James Rocchi brings you The Retro Rental, an older film on disco or download that connects with the here-and-now ...]

For myself, and for many fellow ink-stained wretches who cover, with joy, the world of film, September is the cruelest, craziest month. There’s the Toronto International Film Festival and then — less than a week after that meghilla of too many awesome movies and too many awesome Canadians is over — there’s Austin’s Fantastic Fest, famously called “a film festival with the boring parts left out,” replete with beheadings and behandings and bemusements. Plus, it’s the informal start of Oscar season, which warms movieland up pretty fiercely even if you don’t care about who exactly the Academy extends, with shaking hands, its awards to. And the biggest funny thing I can imagine is that I’m in the middle of all that and, of course, thinking of the one person, and one film, that combines the arty aspirations of the Oscar race, the Canadian-ness of Tiff’s programming and the scares and shrieks of Fantastic Fest, and that’s 2004′s remake of ‘Dawn of the Dead.’

See, one of the best films I saw at Toronto was Sarah Polley’s kinda-doc ‘Stories We Tell,’ a great follow-up to the fiction film ‘Take this Waltz,’ which, if there’s justice, will get Michelle Williams some notice for Best Actress; Polley is, of course, Canadian and the unexpected female lead in ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ a nurse who winds up allied with a loose group of survivors locked up tight in a mall after the zombie apocalypse. And in a lot of ways, it’s one of her best performances — not that, say, her work as a young mom dying of cancer who decides to not tell her family in ‘My Life Without Me’ is lesser. Rather, it’s that ‘Dawn’ showed Polley could do unexpected things in movies where you thought you expected everything, and can sell not only deep and intense emotional loss but also a convincing no-hard-feelings look on her face when she has to headshot an unlikable human who has become an even more unlikable zombie.

And that, really, is what makes the 2004 ‘Dawn of the Dead’ so good — not that it traded in Romero’s shufflers for ’28 Days Later’-esque sprinters, not that it never used the word “zombies,” not the ace mix of practical and digital effects for gore. The script is credited to James Gunn, but it also benefited from some legendary re-writes by Scott Frank (‘Out of Sight’) and Michael Tolkin (‘The Player’), neither of whom are slouches, and those three put the focus on character, character, character. The film then cast just enough new faces — like Polley and the then-unknown Ty Burr of ‘Modern Family‘ and Jake Weber — to make us feel unsure about who exactly was going to get bitten or not, even as we grew to like these people more and more in both crisis and their rare calm moments. Take, for but one example, the debate between Polley and Ving Rhames’ character; do you shoot someone as soon as they’ve been bitten by a zombie, or hold off until they “die” and become one? It doesn’t feel like a phony exercise in fake tension because it isn’t; both the characters have their reasons, and they argue for them.

That’s what makes ‘Dawn of the Dead’ a great horror film above and beyond all, and also why it’s director Zack Snyder‘s best film — because it’s a script about the fragile nature of life, not the indestructible terrors of the afterlife, one that focuses more on the heart and minds of its characters than the veins and brains of its zombies. Sarah Polley helped a lot with that — and really, now that she’s an Oscar-nominated writer-director it’s hard to imagine her stepping up (or down) to do another horror film, so we might as well take what we have with joy. (Snyder mentions in the commentary, hilariously, how Polley noted a few takes into her first day that she had, that morning, already run more on-screen in one day than she had in her whole career.) Between Toronto signifying the start of Oscar season and Fantastic Fest serving as the warning whistle on Halloween, this week ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is the perfect movie for where I’m at; then again, it’s really a great pick anytime.

(‘Dawn of the Dead’ is available on DVD and Blu-ray.)

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